Prayer is the pious turning of the soul towards God. It is a conversation of the heart with God through which man invisibly perceives God and pours out his soul before Him. Prayer is the lifting up of the mind and heart to God, the instrument with which man soars up into the choirs of angels and partakes of their blessedness. Prayer is a God-pleasing incense. It is the most reliable bridge that spans across the temptations of the sea of life, the indestructible rock of all who believe. Prayer provides a quiet refuge, a Godly garment that clothes the soul in goodness and beauty. Prayer is the mother of all good deeds, a guardian of chastity, a seal of virginity, and a sure protection from man’s eternal foe – the devil. Drive out the enemy with the Name of Christ, for there is no means more powerful than this, either in heaven or on earth. Prayer is the foundation upon which rests the world, the appeasement of God for our sins. It is a port which no tempest can reach, an illumination of the mind, the axe which cuts down our despondency, the dispersing of sadness, the birth of hope, the temperance of anger, the intercessor of all those who are judged, the joy of those who are imprisoned, and salvation for the dying. Prayer transformed the belly of a fish into a home for Jonah, brought Ezekiel back to life from the gates of death, sprinkled with dew the three youths in the fiery furnace. It was with prayer that St. Elijah shut the heavens, so that for three years and six months no rain fell upon the earth. When the apostles failed to drive out unclean spirits, the Lord told them: “This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Mat.17:21).
Nothing is more precious in the life of man than prayer. Prayer makes possible even the impossible. It makes easy what is hard and comfortable what is uncomfortable. Prayer is as necessary for man’s soul as is air for breathing. He who does not pray is deprived of conversation with God, and is like a fruitless tree that does not bear good fruit and will in time be cut down and thrown into the fire (Mat. 7:19).
“When you direct your mind and your heart towards the heavens,” says St. Macarios the Great, “and when you desire to be united with the Lord, then a multitude of demons like a dark cloud hovers over you that they might block the heavenward path. But as the ancient walls of Jericho crumbled under God’s might, so now too will the rocks of evil that block your mind give way and be thrown down under the might of God. When you are praying, always bear in mind before Whom it is that you are standing. Be as one deaf and mute to all that surrounds you, cry unto the Lord for help and He will hasten to help you. It is necessary to pull out, by the root, any feelings of anger and be completely pure of every bodily desire, no matter what this desire may be directed towards.”
The teachers of the Church and the Holy Fathers advise that everyone should have humility and contrition in their hearts for their sins during prayer. For if a man does not feel deep within his heart his own sinfulness, God will not hear his prayer. One can see that clearly from the prayer of the Publican. A prayer cleansed by tears of humility and repentance is heard at once. Pouring forth from a contrite soul, the prayer penetrates the clouds, as the wise Solomon says, and does not stop until it reaches the Lord.
At a time of prayer do not busy yourself with other things, for the demons will always attempt to distract you with every kind of business. Should your soul find solace in the sweetness of the words of a prayer, continue praying, for then your guardian angel also prays with you. Saint Nephon once saw a monastic who was praying while walking along. His prayer ascended from his mouth into the heavens like a fiery flame. The monk walked on, and an angel of the Lord also walked with him, escorting him with a fiery lance with which he fended off demons from the monk.
“Pray without ceasing”, said the holy apostle, “lest you fall into temptations.” Ceaseless prayer means that we should not only pray all the time, but that we should at all times remember God, feel His presence and know that He is here before us, that He sees our actions, our intentions and our thoughts. Therefore it is a beautiful custom to call upon the Lord from the heart with short prayers for every situation and every type of work one undertakes. At the beginning of work, one may say, for example: “O God help me!” or: “O Lord, bless.” Upon finishing one’s work, one might say: “Glory to God for all things”, or “I thank Thee, O Lord.” In unforeseen difficulties, or any kind of temptation, one should cry: “Save me , O Lord!” “O God, be merciful to me!” “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” “Most Holy Mother of God, save us!”
It is important to pray not only when we are in a mood for prayer, but even when we do not feel like praying: when laziness, sleep, forgetfulness or anything else distracts us from prayer. If we ignore the dark sea of obstacles that come upon us during prayer, if we force ourselves to pray and wrestle with our self-will, then shall our prayer find its way heavenwards and rest at the foot of the throne of the Lord. Night is very suitable time for solitary prayer. It is a time when all is quiet and calm. All is silent and the prayer that gushes forth from the depths of the heart in the silence of the night is heard, and God’s grace settles on the soul in even greater abundance. At the time of such prayer, the All-evil One rises against the praying person with great vehemence and many temptations, fears and distractions. At the same time God’s grace multiplies in order to protect us and give us spiritual support.
The general opinion of the holy fathers is that prayer, as the daughter of the commandments in the Holy Gospel, is also the mother of all virtue.
In order to prevent distractions of the mind during prayer, the holy fathers teach us to keep the mind concentrated on the words of the prayer as steadfastly as possible. For this reason it is better for the prayers to be read out of a prayer book, instead of reciting them by heart. This is particularly important for those weak in their faith and for beginners. In the Orthodox Church all prayers are read or chanted from a book, no matter how well one knows them from memory. Thus a mind that is engrossed in the words of prayer does not stray easily from them. If the mind cannot stay focused on the words of the prayer, then one should read the prayers aloud, but only so loudly as to be audible to oneself. This is especially beneficial when praying alone.
One should not strain too much while praying, or sigh often taking deep breaths, or keep one’s head high up or thrown back, as all this is very harmful. It is good to pray quietly with deep, but silent breathes, with the head bowed humbly, and from time to time to glance at the holy icons, as one who truly feels sinful in the eyes of the Lord. At the time of communal prayer, our supplications should be silent, so as not to disturb the prayers of others.
Should your mind wander off during prayer, instead of being fixed on heaven and God, do not fall into despair, but redirect your attention to the words of the prayer. Even though such prayer is not completely pure, it will still bear fruit.
There is no greater comfort for a grieving person than prayer. “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray (James 5:13).”
Illness and other woes that befall us are consequences of sin. For this reason we must ask God to forgive our sins, so that at the same time we might be healed of the ailments of the body and other ills. When God allows hunger, war, floods, draughts, hail, earthquakes and other disasters to happen, it is because of people’s sins. The cause of all evil lies within ourselves. From this comes the need to pray to God for the forgiveness of our sins, so that, having been freed from this root of all calamities, we might also be freed from all natural evil, that overcome us in the form of fear-inspiring natural phenomena.
It may happen that a person does not receive what he asks for in prayer. That might mean that God hears the prayer, but is testing the patience and long-suffering of the praying person. If he endures until the end, he receives from God much more than he had asked for. Or it might mean that the prayer has not been answered because what the person was asking for was unto evil and not unto good.
Individual prayer, such as the Lord Himself commanded us to practice (Mat.6:6), should not be considered sufficient. In various situations in life: birth, death, marriage, the building of a home, harvest, before a long journey, in times of illness, etc., besides individual prayer, one should seek the prayerful help of the church and her priests, as the Holy Scripture also directs us (James 5:14). One must not ignore regular participation in communal prayers in church. This too, is the will of God (Mat.18:20) and was obeyed by the apostles and the saints (Acts 1:14; 12:12).
We must always bear in mind the importance of the sign of the Cross during prayer. One must make the sign of the Cross correctly, never carelessly as though ashamed of the Lord’s Cross, waving the hand vaguely in front of one’s breast without even taking the trouble to put the fingers together properly. It is a sin which saddens the Lord to make the sign of the Cross without piety and attention. Such a Cross is not only without power, but gives satisfaction to the Evil One, as it does not drive him away. Not even a sinner fears the place of eternal punishment as much as demons fear and tremble at the sign of the Cross, not daring to look upon its power (for the power of the Cross is the very Lord Jesus Christ) which burns them like a fiery flame. Armed with the sign of the Holy Cross, Christian martyrs walked fearlessly to their agonizing deaths. Also, with the power of Christ’s Cross, the saints have healed the ill, raised the dead, drank poison without any danger to themselves, and passed through water and fire.
One of the ancient writers from the early centuries of Christianity witnessed that the first Christians, following the apostolic tradition, blessed themselves with the sign of the Cross in every circumstance or situation in their lives. They did this upon leaving the house, dressing, putting on their footwear, washing, before and after meals, before lighting a fire, going to sleep, and sitting down, before every action or work. Today’s Christian on the other hand, is embarrassed in making the sign of the Cross when sitting down for a meal, or as a guest at a Slava. He forgets the Lord’s words: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father and the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).